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Israel vows to defend offshore gas rig amid escalating tensions with Lebanon

Joint statement from foreign, defense, and energy ministers stresses facility at Karish field is in Israeli territorial waters; urges Lebanese to accelerate talks to resolve issue

Energean working in the Karish oil field, offshore Israel, in 2020. (Screen capture/YouTube)
Energean working in the Karish oil field, offshore Israel, in 2020. (Screen capture/YouTube)

Israel on Wednesday insisted that its new offshore natural gas rig in the Mediterranean Sea will not pump from a disputed area with Lebanon and urged the resumption of talks to solve the issue, as tensions flare between Jerusalem and Beirut.

In a joint statement, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Energy Minister Karine Elharrar also warned that Israel has the right to defend its strategic infrastructure and is prepared to do so.

Lebanon and Israel — which have no diplomatic relations and consider each other enemy states — have been holding indirect talks brokered by the US for close to two years to resolve a maritime border dispute.

The new drilling platform arrived on Sunday at the Karish site, which Israel says is part of its UN-recognized exclusive economic zone and which Beirut insists is in the disputed area. It is expected to become operational in the next few months.

The ministers’ joint statement said: “The Karish rig is a strategic asset of the State of Israel and is intended to extract the energy resources and natural gas in the State of Israel’s Economic Zone and to advance Israel’s green economy.

“With its anchoring, the rig is located in Israeli territory, several kilometers south of the area over which negotiations are being conducted between the State of Israel and the Republic of Lebanon, mediated by the United States. The rig will not pump gas from the disputed territory.”

L-R: Minister Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, and Prime Minster Naftali Bennett in the Knesset, in Jerusalem on June 6, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We call on the Republic of Lebanon to accelerate negotiations on the maritime border,” the ministers wrote, adding that resolving the issue will benefit Lebanon’s economy and its citizens.

“The State of Israel prioritizes the protection of its strategic assets, and is prepared to defend them and the security of its infrastructure, all in accordance with its rights,” the statement said.

The years-long dispute flared in the past week due to the installment of the Karish facility. Beirut reacted angrily, and the Lebanese Hezbollah terror group issued threats.

The speaker of Lebanon’s parliament, Nabih Berri, told a parliamentary session on Tuesday that US energy diplomat Amos Hochstein is expected in the country on Sunday or Monday next week. Lebanon urged Hochstein to come quickly to help resolve the spike in tensions over the rig. The envoy mediated previous indirect talks between the sides that have stalled.

Hezbollah deputy chief Naim Qassem told Reuters on Monday that it is prepared to use force against Israel if Lebanon determines that its maritime borders have been breached.

“When the Lebanese state says that the Israelis are assaulting our waters and our oil, then we are ready to do our part in terms of pressure, deterrence and use of appropriate means — including force,” Qassem said.

His threats came after on Lebanese President Michel Aoun said on Sunday that Israeli action in the territory represents “a provocation and a hostile act.”

Energy Minister Karine Elharrar during a meeting of the Arrangements Committee at the Knesset on June 9, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

An IDF report released Sunday said the military is preparing for a Hezbollah attack on the rig and is planning to deploy naval forces to the site, including a naval-adapted form of the Iron Dome missile defense system.

A senior IDF general also threatened Hezbollah military infrastructure on Lebanon’s border on Tuesday.

Talks surrounding the disputed territory began in late 2020 but have been on hold since Lebanon called for control over an additional 1,430 square kilometers (552 square miles) of maritime territory currently under Israeli control. The two countries were originally negotiating the demarcation of 860 square kilometers (332 square miles) of maritime territory, which are officially registered as disputed according to a 2011 map filed with the United Nations.

Both Israel and Lebanon have economic interests in the territory, which contains lucrative natural gas. Lebanon, which has been mired in an economic crisis since late 2019, sees the resources as a potential road out.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, right, meets with US Envoy for Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein, center, and US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea, left, at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, Feb. 9, 2022. (Dalati Nohra/Lebanese Official Government via AP)

Speaking on Monday, following Lebanon’s request for intervention, US State Department spokesman Ned Price would not confirm any upcoming travel for Hochstein, but said the White House is eager to resolve the issues as talks have largely stalled.

Hochstein was appointed by US President Joe Biden to facilitate negotiations between the two countries last year. In November, he threatened to end talks if the countries could not reach a solution, and in February he said time was running out to make any deal.

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